Robert Diaz’s stage name — Pumpkinhead, later changed to PH — has graced concert posters, album covers, and YouTube links. But as of this weekend, the late rapper has his biggest headline yet: a street in his old neighborhood.
“This is all he ever wanted, and all he ever asked for,” said longtime friend, rapper/journalist Mr. Mecc. “Not the accolades, not the deal, not the money. But his people standing next to each other, having a good time.”
Over 100 friends, family and admirers crowded at the corner of DeGraw Ave. and 5th Ave. in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood on Saturday morning. The block of DeGraw Ave. between 4 Ave. and 5 Ave., where Diaz grew up, was officially renamed Robert “PH” Diaz Way, after the Brooklyn lyricist who died in June 2015.
Diaz’s gruff voice and comical punchlines earned him respect as a staple of the underground and battle rap circuits. During his nearly 20-year career, he worked with the likes of Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Immortal Technique, Murs, Del the Funky Homosapien, and several others. He is perhaps most known for Orange Moon Over Brooklyn, his 2005 LP that was released on Rawkus Records.
The morning began at the intersection, where loved ones took turns sharing teary-eyed testimonies about Diaz — his passion for connecting people and supporting other artists, memories from his tours around the world, his hilarious sense of humor, and his intense focus on taking care of his wife and children. After the street sign was unveiled, attendees walked up the block to Brooklyn bar Littlefield for a party with food, DJs who integrated Pumpkinhead into their sets, and big screens that showed videos and photos.
Collaborators and indie rap fixtures like Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, producer Marco Polo and PackFM were among attendees. Some shared words at the unveiling ceremony, while some simply celebrated the occasion and enjoyed each other’s company, the way Diaz would have wanted.
Saturday’s festivities were the final result after months of work from longtime friend Claudia “CL Smoothie” Imperiale. After childhood friends suggested the idea of a street renaming, Imperiale checked with the Park Slope community board and started a petition in July to collect signatures.
Rap can be divisive because of its explicit lyrics — a 2013 petition to rename another Brooklyn street after the Notorious BIG was rejected by a nearby community board. But Imperiale wanted to send a message that transcended music: community pride. While other artists and promoters would only throw shows in Manhattan, Diaz would throw shows in Park Slope and bring support to venues like Southpaw, SRB Brooklyn and Voodoo Sports Lounge, all former neighborhood fixtures that are now closed. Even when rent hikes in the rapidly gentrifying area forced him to move, Diaz continued to visit because he loved the neighborhood. On Sept. 17, Imperiale brought the board a binder full of letters from business owners, artists, family and friends, along with articles in music magazines and websites about Diaz’s death.
“I didn’t want them to just think, some rapper from Park Slope, his friends think he should have a block named after him,” Imperiale said. “I thought it was important that they knew exactly who he was, what he stood for and what he represented.” She added that an attendee at the board meeting cited the importance of preserving the memory of residents who were there before the Park Slope transformed. “An older woman there spoke about the gentrification of our neighborhood, and talked about how important it is that Brooklyn remembers its roots, and remembers the people that were here before it was what it was.”
Talib Kweli went to elementary school with Diaz, and both began their rap careers around the same time. He said that Diaz leaves behind a legacy of “evolution and elevation,” for fearlessly re-entering the battling scene later in his life.
“Long after we were freestyling and battling in the park, when the battle scene became more international and global, he jumped back in it at an age where a lot of people would’ve been scared. The way they do it now, it’s advanced, as it should be,” Kweli told Billboard at Littlefield, moments after raising his glass for a group toast to Diaz’s memory. “Pumpkinhead wasn’t scared of this advancement. He never stopped competing and evolving with his craft.
“He had as much influence on his community as his community had on him,” Kweli said, “and you can see it literally by the fact that he has a street named after him.”